During my conversion process, I read several books and booklets written by conservative Muslims that essentially argued that the “Muslim woman” (in an “ideal Islamic society” at least) are far better off than the generic “Western woman.” This is because while “Western” women have to compete with men in the working world in order to survive, (it was argued) Muslim women are respected, protected, and can count on being financially supported by their male relatives or husbands throughout their lives.
As time went on, conservative Muslim writers and speakers began to use words and phrases such as “gender equity” and “true liberation” and even “a western feminist’s dream” to describe this vision of what Muslim women are supposedly entitled to.
I (and my convert friends) bought into this vision. And we tried so hard to make it work, for years. Why? And, what was this vision really about? Was it an authentic, indigenous third-world/western religious woman feminist (or womanist) idea, as some claimed? Or was it really about infantilizing and controlling us by limiting our options to make choices?
We were taught that women dedicating their lives to being stay-at-home wives and mothers was “natural” and biologically-based. Different authors/speakers made this argument in different ways. Some attempted to do so using positive-sounding language and focuses on what (all) women supposedly want and need, arguing that women “naturally” want to be protected by men, and stay at home and devote their time and attention to having children. They quoted western feminists talking about the “second shift.” How is it fair (they asked) for a woman to be expected to work full-time, and then to have to come home and deal with most or all of the housework and childcare?
What about working women who hardly get to see their kids except on weekends? And how about those poor women who had put off having children in order to establish their careers, but then when they decided that they were ready to have them were still single? Or even worse, found that their age meant that their fertility was significantly reduced?
(Of course, the answer to these problems was not to make provision for parental leave, or for men to pull their weight at home, or for workplaces to provide on-site childcare for example… it was for women to stay home. Coincidentally enough, that way neither individual husbands nor the government nor corporations would be inconvenienced. Interesting coincidence, that.)
Arguments based on highlighting women’s supposed weaknesses and unfitness for the world of work were also plentiful, especially from more conservative authors/speakers. They never tired of repeating that women are lighter, smaller and weaker than men on average; that women menstruate, get pregnant, give birth and lactate. They often made exaggerated claims about the supposed impact of the hormonal fluctuations that accompany these processes, PMS, and dysmenorrhea to argue in essence that menstruation is practically on par with a disability, so that having to work outside the home would just be too much for women. As well as claiming that due to said physical processes, that women are driven by emotion rather than reason, which then supposedly indicates that their “natural” role is to stay home and care for their families.
(I don’t know what they didn’t also argue that a menstruating woman is unfit to be a mother, full stop… oh wait, they do pretty much make that claim when it comes to defending the notion that women can’t be guardians of their own children even after a divorce–that at best, they can only hold temporary custody, while the child is young.)
We rolled our eyes at such conservative claims about the supposedly dire side-effects of menstruation, and weren’t entirely convinced even by the most positive-sounding arguments in favor of women staying home. But at the same time, we were drawn into this valorization of stay-at-home-wife-and-motherhood a great extent.
Partly because we ourselves wanted to build strong, god-conscious families, and how would that be possible without following what we were told that God wanted us to do? The argument was made that one reason why so many marriages today fail is because women are too overbearing, encroaching on men’s roles and refusing to let men take the lead. By leaving it up to our husbands to earn a living for the family, we would be rewarded by their becoming the protecting, loving men who “treat their wives like queens” that conservative Muslim apologetics promised. And we would be respected as pious wives and mothers who carried out their roles “properly.”
We were drawn in partly because these arguments were being made in the context of very conformist community pressures. And, we were drawn in partly due to the religious bullying that often accompanied these sorts of discussions. Usually, it remained below the surface of the argument, but it would on occasion be brought out to push us back into line: Women who made working a priority supposedly didn’t want to be women—they were really trying to be men, but they were failing at that too, and just making themselves look ridiculous. Or, we couldn’t understand the wisdom of women staying at home because we had been irrevocably tainted by our “western” upbringings.
But the factors that convinced us of the rightness of staying at home and embracing a very labor-intensive model of mother- and wife-hood weren’t only ideological. There were several social and economic factors involved.
First, we wore hijab, and we had been taught that there is no good excuse to remove it short of a life or death situation. But in those days (the ’80’s and early ’90’s), hijab was far from being a common sight where I was living at that time, and most employers didn’t want to hire hijab-wearing women, especially not for positions in which they would be dealing with the public. So, getting the sort of entry-level job that we would have otherwise been likely to be hired for (given the level of our education and our scant work experience) didn’t seem like a realistic goal.
Second, what few experiences we had had in the working world hadn’t been positive or encouraging. Shortly after converting, my (then-)husband went through a spell when he was unable to work, and the only job I could find was cleaning offices in the evenings. They were willing to hire me because nobody (except other cleaners, and our supervisor) would have to see me. I was paid minimum wage, and there were no benefits. My job involved cleaning office cubicles in a large building belonging to a corporation.
We each worked alone in different sections of that multistory, dimly lit building. Our supervisor was a rather creepy guy, who would sneak around and watch us. I’d be hard at work, and I’d get the feeling that someone else was there… and turn around, and there he was, grinning, with this weird sort of expression on his face that made me think of a cat that had cornered a mouse. I was well aware that nobody was on that floor but me (and him), and that nobody would have been able to hear me if I had screamed. I didn’t think that it would do me any good to complain (What was there to complain about, exactly? And who would I complain to? Him?). And if I lost that job, how would I find another?
Experiences like this helped reinforce the message we were getting from conservative Muslims that associated work outside the home for women with shame, and vulnerability. We didn’t experience it as fulfilling or empowering. It did not occur to us at the time that the problems we faced might have solutions. This was partly because we treated discrimination (whether against Muslims, or against women) like forces of nature—something that we should try to dodge if possible, or endure if we had to. But we thought it was futile to challenge such things head on.
And third: we were poor, and we were also married to men who saw housework and childcare as essentially “women’s work” (that they might “help out with” from time to time as the sunna moved them, but wouldn’t take consistent responsibility for). Poverty is a time-suck, especially with small children—so many things that a person with more money would buy or pay to have done, we did ourselves, often by hand. And, our husbands weren’t helping all that much. Under the circumstances, working seemed hardly feasible. When would we have found the time? And, who would do the housework and see to the kids?
Under the circumstances, the conservative Muslim arguments that in favor of staying home ended up becoming appealing to us. Partly because we didn’t see any positive alternatives. And once we were living it, it became harder and harder to even think of getting out. While we worked hard, this was not work that led to any sort of autonomy or independence. It made us more dependent on our husbands and insular, conservative community (which is the next post).
On my last post, Mary has a very insightful comment:
“…And women’s lives are actually trivialized; I recently had a conversation with a western convert here who boasted to me that she had a job, but she can spend her money on “whatever tickles my fancy,” and that she can stop working and stay home if she wants to. I thought, you have been infantilized and you don’t even know it. You have been removed from the adult world of responsibility and autonomy and have been effectively disempowered, and this has been done so effectively that you don’t even see it. How does the society itself take women seriously when the ones who are working are doing it for shopping money? Is this not degrading, this false freedom, this trivializing of female life?”
We bought this claim for years—the notion that Muslim women can keep whatever money they have as theirs alone to spend on whatever they want, while their husbands/fathers/other male relatives have to spend on them, and that this is liberation. It served rather like an opium for us, because it was one of the factors that prevented us from acknowledging what was actually going on. The fact was the due to our poverty, we never did get to keep whatever money might fall into our hands, whether it was through the odd gift from a relative, or finding money on the ground, or earning it by babysitting a neighbor’s kids. We always had to spend it on groceries or other household necessities.
But this reality did not cause us to doubt the entire package deal that we had been sold. If anything, the contrast between what the books and speakers and pamphlets said, and our lived realities gave us a guilty feeling: Clearly, we must be doing something wrong. We weren’t pious enough. We needed to try harder, and give ourselves over to stay-at-home wife- and motherhood even more completely.
The idea that women don’t really need financial independence, and that if they have it they will just spend money on luxuries is trivializing, certainly. It plays into a number of negative stereotypes of women as foolish and childishly entranced by worldly trifles. It erases the experiences of the many women the world over who work hard so that they and their families can have a roof over their head and food to eat.
Looking back, I can also see how much this conservative Muslim notion that women shouldn’t work outside the home also trivialized our lives in a number of ways: It encouraged us to believe that we were lesser. That we couldn’t do much if anything about the social, economic and familial factors that made it easier for us to choose to say home, and that it wasn’t worth even trying—because in the end, we weren’t worth it. It encouraged us to focus our time and energies on things that we weren’t always very good at, trying to fit into this narrow and ever more demanding mold of the “ideal Muslim wife and mother”, and beating ourselves up when we couldn’t—instead of recognizing that hey, not every woman is necessarily superb at cooking, or even wants to do it, and that’s fine.
The unreachable demands of this ideal, plus the community gossip and the endless competition among the sisters also gave us the haunting feeling (which we tried unsuccessfully to suppress…) that we were not only lesser, but quite replaceable as wives. No matter how good we might become at trying to fit the mold (and heaven knows, we tried hard enough), there would always be women who would be better at it than us. Because in the end, it was not us as individuals that we believed mattered to our husbands, children or community, but our ability to play the role expected of us.